Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Honey and Walnut Soda Bread

In my first job out of university, I spent three months living and working  in Brussels. This was my first time ever living abroad, first time ever living on my own, and first time ever doing either of those things in a world where I didn't really speak the language (it's frightening how much French you can forget in 4 years). I got to know my new colleagues, was welcomed into their social circles and ushered into the expat world. I spent hours exploring the city on my own and had adventures with my new friends - dancing till dawn, going to Cuban hiphop concerts, serving behind the bar at a charity pantomime, eating my first (and last) kebab. It was dizzying and disorientating and I felt, for the first time in my life, like a proper grown-up.

Baking this at my mum's house, she had measured everything out in little bowls as if we were on Blue Peter. 
I also missed my boyfriend, family and friends sorely, became addicted to Skype and realized how much I love London. I promised myself that never again would I live in a one-room flat with only a single ring to cook on and mousetraps in the halls. I trudged through the slush and puddles of Brussels in January, railed against the lack of open shops on a Sunday and held my breath through the astounding urine stench around the Gare du Midi. 

I visited the Chocolate Museum and the Mannekin Pis, gazed at the Atomium and the Tintin graffiti and desperately, dearly longed to come home. On the day when I settled into my London-bound Eurostar seat for the last time, bags filled with Wittamer chocolate and worn-to-death gloves and scarves, my iPod shuffle came up with the Jackson 5 singing "Going Back to Indiana". Even today, Michael Jackson's whoop of joy makes my heart leap.

But of course, my main memories are food. I came home from Brussels distinctly chubbier than I'd gone and when you consider the Belgian greatest hits, it's hardly surprising. Frites with mayonnaise, steak, mussels and more mayonnaise. Endless rounds of gaufres on the street, crunchy with sparkling crystals of sugar, and posh chocolates in shops. My colleagues and I would eat out almost every lunchtime (with wine, naturellement!) and even when you did have to eat al desko, the local cafes specialised in oozing wedges of freshly cooked quiche in buttery, crumbly pastry. My low-key lunch of choice was a walnut and raisin wholemeal baguette filled with nothing but ripe brie, followed by the most perfect tarte au citron, hiding a mini sponge centre soaked in lemon curd and surrounded by quivering custard. Like I say, a bit of extra chub was hardly surprising. 

This soda bread was the second of three baking experiments with my mum and its flavour reminded me instantly of those far-off brie baguettes in a sweet and nutty baguette. But although the idea was lovely, the bread itself didn't quite work. It needed far more time in the oven than the recipe suggested, and still came out quite heavy and dense. As for the nuts, I think toasting them lightly in a pan or the oven before adding them to the mix would have made all the difference - this way they still tasted slightly raw. And the honey added a general sweetness, but its favour wasn't very clearly defined.

Next time, I'd use my tried and tested soda bread recipe which delivers a much better textured bread, adding in some honey, raisins and toasted, chopped walnuts before cooking. Served with a fat wodge of cheese and maybe a slice or two of pear, I can practically taste my Brussels baguette back again. Just don't let me follow it up with a gaufre. And some frites. And a dense hot chocolate, tarte au citron, and chocolate truffle. Like I said, not surprising I came back a more rounded - and rounder - person.

Honey and Walnut Soda Bread
Note: this recipe didn't work out all that well for us, although the flavour was nice. This is the recipe as we made it - fingers crossed it works out better for you. Or if you want a soda bread which always works, which can be flavoured according to whim, try this one

- 100g honey
- 100g walnuts
- 250g plain wholemeal flour
- 5g salt
- 2 teaspoons of baking powder
- 150ml water

Preheat the oven to 200C. Gently warm the honey in a pan, and crush the walnuts in a pestle and mortar - some quite fine, some still big and chunky. 

Mix together all the dry ingredients in a bowl, then add the honey and water and stir until it's all combined. Knead it for a minute or so until it feels like a firm dough. We had to add a bit more flour as well, as ours came up very wet.

Shape into a round, about 5cm high (although I think it could have been taller) and cut a deep cross into it, almost all the way through. Place on a baking tray lined with parchment and bake for 20-25 minutes or until it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom (ahem). Actually, ours took about 10-15 minutes longer than that, now I come to mention it. Anyway, serve with a big slice of cheese and a Belgian accent. Or as it's soda bread, a Belgian-Irish accent. There's a challenge for you!

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